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March 21, 2007

A burgeoning industry

Jack Loudermilk, Sara Spayd and Trevor Phister at Buck Shoals Vineyard
Viticulturist Dr. Sara Spayd (center), enology specialist Dr. Trevor Phister (right) and Yadkin County Extension director Jack Loudermilk (left) sample the grapes at Buck Shoals Vineyard and Winery in Hamptonville. (Photos by Suzanne Stanard)

When Dr. Sara Spayd makes presentations about growing wine grapes, she always shows a photograph of a Riesling vine that has pushed through dry desert ground, wrapped itself around a gnarly cluster of tumbleweed and is bearing fruit.

It’s a demonstration of how little water wine grapes need in order to grow. The image is also an eye-opening statement on the challenges of growing wine grapes in North Carolina, in a climate known for humidity, rain, and a long hurricane season that happens to coincide with harvest time.

“One of my biggest goals is to find varieties that are well-suited to the North Carolina climate and will produce a good finished product,” says Spayd, the College’s new viticulturist and professor of horticultural science.

A native North Carolinian whose father once grew muscadine grapes for wine down East, Spayd has just returned to the state from 26 years as a professor at Washington State University. Her work helped Washington’s wine industry become the second largest in the country.
North Carolina’s industry, she says, is growing legs.

The number of wineries in North Carolina has more than doubled since 2002, from 25 to 57, according to Margo Knight, director of the North Carolina Wine and Grape Council. The state has more than 350 commercial vineyards covering more than 1,500 acres.

In 2005, state-produced grapes were valued at nearly $3.7 million, and the value of state-produced wine was estimated at $54 million, according to Knight. A new winery opens every month on average, Knight says, and North Carolina ranks 12th for wine production and 10th for grape production in the U.S.

“North Carolina has the ability to grow a wide variety of grapes, which sets us apart from most,” Knight says. “In addition to traditional European wine grapes like Chardonnay and Merlot, we also grow native varieties like muscadine and scuppernong.”

But, the challenges to the industry in North Carolina are significant.

wine grapes

“Right now, the number-one challenge is consistent quality of grapes and wine,” Knight says. “There are still a lot of folks working out the kinks, so to speak. As a fairly new kid on the block, our state is judged by both its good and bad wines.”

Also, Pierce’s disease, an insect-borne scourge, is an issue for wine grape growers.

Spayd is one of three new faculty in the College whose work will support the wine and grape industry. Connie Fisk is a new muscadine Extension associate, and Dr. Trevor Phister, a new assistant professor in the Department of Food Science, specializes in enology (the science of wine and wine making).

“Industry members are excited about this new leadership and are optimistic that N.C. State will play a major role in assisting our grape growers and winemakers,” Knight says.

Spayd is responsible for bunch grape research and Extension in the Department of Horticultural Science. She’ll wear two hats: as a researcher, she’ll work to find new grape varieties that will grow well in North Carolina; and through Extension, she’ll help educate agents and growers on vineyard and winery management practices that will improve the quality of grapes and their products.

Since arriving last spring, Spayd has hosted a number of different workshops and packed thousands of miles on her truck visiting Extension agents and wineries throughout the state. She and Dr. Barclay Poling, professor of horticultural science, also launched a new distance-education viticulture course in January.

Fisk, who received a master’s degree at Oregon State University in 2006, will support Extension agents in counties where muscadines are commercially grown. Muscadine grapes are grown in nearly 50 counties as far west as Surry, but mostly in the east.

Naturally disease- and pest-resistant, muscadine grapes grow well in North Carolina, she says. The sweet grapes are valued not only for their juice, but also for their hulls and seeds. Packed with antioxidants, these byproducts of the winemaking industry are now being manufactured into nutritional supplements. Fresh market sales of muscadine grapes are also strong.

“With the growing demand for muscadines comes exciting opportunities for farmers in North Carolina to diversify,” Fisk says. “A lot of growers affected by the tobacco buyout are looking to keep their land and grow new crops.”

Based at the Duplin County Cooperative Extension Service Office, Fisk has focused her first year on learning the landscape. She’s been busy traveling to the muscadine-growing counties to learn first-hand the needs and concerns of growers, agents, wineries and vineyards.

She’ll help with site selection, vineyard management practices and fruit quality control, among many other things. She also finds time to help teach a viticulture and enology course at nearby James Sprunt Community College.

“With the market growing, agents are receiving more and more questions,” Fisk says. “Knowing the risks ahead of time will help them, and help growers, produce a quality product.”

Phister joins the College from Drexel University, where he served as assistant professor of bioscience and biotechnology. He’ll focus his research on fermentation and the science behind what makes wine taste good or bad. He also carries an Extension appointment and already has in mind a slate of ideas.

“I’m going to help support the viticulture work,” he says. “The ultimate end point of the grapes they’re growing is to make wine. And, once I pick up on what some of the industry’s concerns and problems are, then I’ll set up research in those areas. I think it’s exciting how the industry is growing in North Carolina.”

Among Phister’s goals is to establish a program through which wineries can submit samples for sensory, microbial and chemical analysis – a blind taste-test, so to say – that will help them determine strengths and weaknesses of particular wines.

He’ll also team with Appalachian State University and Surry Community College on research studies, and he hopes to set up a winemakers’ roundtable that would create new networking opportunities for the state’s wineries.

At the College’s annual “Celebrate N.C. Wines” event in October, 12 of the state’s wineries offered tastings. Designed as much to educate as to celebrate, the event also featured research demonstrations, wine and food pairings workshops, a silent auction and live music.

“Celebrate N.C. Wines” raised $22,000 to support viticulture and enology research in the College, as well as the JC Raulston Arboretum.

At the event’s closing ceremony, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Dean Johnny Wynne said, “We in the College are proud to serve as partners in developing an industry with the potential to have significant impact on the economy and renown of our state.”

-S. Stanard

Posted by Suzanne at March 21, 2007 09:58 AM